BU graduate Henry Owens makes it to the big leagues with the Florida Marlins
By Mike Laderman
Henry Owens wasn’t happy. The junior catcher of Barry University’s baseball team felt no love for the game. He felt like he was, quite simply, just going through the motions.
“I told the coach [Chris Cafalone] that I was done,” said the 6-foot-3, 230-pound right-hander. “I was not very happy playing baseball, so I said to myself, ‘Why am I doing this? I’m not enjoying it, so I’ll go do something else.’”
So Owens quit, right then and there, on Barry University’s Feinbloom Field, in the middle of a 22-31 season in 2000.
Well, make that “almost” quit. While Owens began eyeing a new life out of baseball, focusing on a potential medical career, Alex Pinon, the team’s shortstop, made it a point to share his thoughts with Owens.
“I was done playing, at least until [Alex], one day, got a hold of me,” Owens said. “I remember him grabbing me by the shirt, pushing me up against the wall. He said to me, ‘You know what, if I had half the talent you did, I’d be busting my butt in the weight room and working hard. You’d be making a big mistake if you quit.’”
Pinon’s words marked a turning point for the frustrated 21-year-old athlete, who, at the time, stood two inches shorter and weighed in at 213 pounds.
“It seemed like right after that conversation, that’s when things started happening for me as far as baseball was concerned,” Owens said. “All of a sudden, scouts started showing up at the games, asking about me…I started seeing that there just might be a future for me in baseball.”
Technically, just seven years have past since the season of Owens’s discontent, but it might as well be a lifetime
Since graduating from BU’s School of Natural and Health Sciences with honors in 2001, Owens, 28, has been on a steady climb through the ranks of professional baseball, working his way through the minor leagues until getting called up to the major leagues by the New York Mets last season — the first BU athlete to reach that level. He then was traded to the Florida Marlins (with reliever Matt Lindstrom) for pitchers Jason Vargas and Adam Bostick.
There was, however, one slight change: He made it not as the catcher he was during his time at BU, but as a pitcher.
“When I was at Barry, if somebody would have said to me that I’d be pitching in the major leagues, I would have told them that they were crazy,” Owens said. “It was always a dream of mine, but I never believed it was realistic. I caught in high school [at Braddock Senior High School], and I caught in college. I had never pitched before in my life. There were always talks about me pitching a little bit while at Barry. Some of the assistant coaches would throw that thought out there, and some of the players would throw the idea around, but we never followed through with it. So it was definitely a pretty radical transition.”
That transition actually began off the mounds at BU’s Feinbloom Field. During Owens’ senior season, in which he shared duties behind the plate with Jason Behnke and Luis Boullon, and connected for six home runs with 20 runs batted in, Owens caught the attention of a few scouts that had initially come to BU’s games to watch its pitchers. One scout, in particular, made it a point to study Owens closely — the Pittsburgh Pirates’ Delvy Santiago.
Owens was just participating in an infield/outfield session, doing his job as the Bucs’ catcher, keeping the ball moving and throwing to the bases, when Santiago pulled him aside. With radar gun in hand, Santiago wanted Owens to do something he’d not done before — throw from off the mound.
“When I got out there, I was not comfortable,” Owens said. “I had no idea what to do on the mound. I just got the ball and tried to throw it as hard as I could in the vicinity of the catcher, and hopefully that was good enough for them. I probably looked very awkward — although, that’s not to say that I’m looking much smoother now. I definitely bring a very unique style to pitching.”
That would be an understatement. From the time Owens signed with the Pirates and began playing with their rookie ball affiliate in Bradenton, Florida (under the tutelage of coaches Doc Watson and Scott Emerson), to other minor league stops with the Williamsport (Pennsylvania) Crosscutters, Hickory (North Carolina) Crawdads, Lynchburg Hillcats and Binghamton Mets, to earning his big break with the New York Mets, Owens has always had an awkward looking delivery — a “short-arm delivery,” as he calls it.
“It’s a little funky delivery that he has, but he repeats it, and it’s funky enough that I think some of the hitters have a tough time seeing the ball,” said Florida Marlins first-year manager Fredi Gonzalez. “You can’t coach or teach that delivery he has. You don’t want to bring your 6-year-old son out there and try to teach that arm action. But that’s the way he’s been throwing for a long time. He’s built up his arm that way, so that’s the way he’ll keep doing it.”
That funky delivery of Owens impressed Gonzalez enough that he gave him a spot on the opening day roster as a middle reliever. Yet, when closer Jorge Julio failed to live up to his expectations, Gonzalez called upon Owens, who delivered four saves, including three in a row — two against his former team, the Mets, and one versus San Diego.
“He still has the look of a catcher; he’s a tough, ugly guy,” said Gonzalez, a smile on his face. “Kidding aside, when [Owens] steps on that mound, he’s all business, and he’s got a bulldog mentality. It doesn’t happen very often, that a catcher gets turned into a pitcher. But he’s got the arm, he’s got the arm strength, and he’s got that mentality of a position player. He’s just been great.”
Unfortunately for Owens and the Marlins, the right-hander was placed on the 15-day disabled list in May when diagnosed with tendonitis in his rotator cuff. In just the season’s first two months, before being put on the DL, Owens had gone 2-0 with a 1.96 earned run average. He rejoined the team in late May, but was put on the disabled list yet again in June with inflammation in his right shoulder.
Not as if he hadn’t been down (and out) before. The difference now, of course, is that his future in professional baseball has become his daily reality. He no longer needs someone to talk sense into him. He no longer questions what his career path will be, and he no longer needs to wonder which minor league city will be his next stop on the way to The Show.
And to think it all started with a shove against a wall.
“Everything changed after that one moment,” Owens said. “I did not love the game when I played in college. But when I got to pro ball and saw all that talent, I just developed a renewed passion, and it’s something that hasn’t diminished.”